False Controversies

I taught my second section of ethics for the first time today. It went ok. I feel like these students are almost as humorless as my previous second section, but at least a lot of them participate, so far.

I came out a little too quickly with some of my biases. Still inspired by the Gore talk, I brought up global warming with the one student (out of over a dozen) who went to see it. She said she found it convincing but wanted to hear the other side. I told her there is no other side, just as with evolution. Evolution came up again when one student, a major in a subfield of biology, said it was "just a theory." And he was serious. Biologists should know better.

And this brings me to the topic of this post. You might recall (from the last post)l that Gore showed us two studies on the frequency of doubts about global warming, one of which indicated out of a random sample of 982 articles (roughly 10% of the total) from the last 10 years on climate change, exactly 0 expressed any doubt, whereas in the same time period, 53% of all popular newspaper and magazine articles on the subject called warming into question.

Gore drew a parallel with science concerning the effects of smoking, in which one tobacco company memo admitted that the real product they were selling was "doubt." This is what many energy companies, and their hired scientific whores, do with warming today.

In both cases, economic interest leads to a campaign of misinformation that has proven highly effective on a populace little educated in science. The real controversy is whether there is a controversy in the first place. (I'm in the middle of writing a paper on matters like this, concerning evolution.)

But there seems to be no obvious economic interest in this evolution "debate." People will go so far as to doubt the entirety of a scientific community to preserve their false beliefs. What is the rationale here? Why is evolution perceived as a threat?

When we break it down, we see that the debate over the origin of species consists of a number of distinct but interrelated controversies. On the surface, there is the question of the facticity of evolution. If this is denied, and evolution is taken to be "just a theory," a second question is posed: are there any legitimate competing theories? But even asking this question takes sides on two other controversial matters.

First, there is the assumption that evolution is incompatible, a competitor, with certain beliefs grounded in religion. Many people do not accept this, and are willing to compromise on something often called "guided evolution," essentially an updated version of deism. Second is that there is something robust enough to be called a theory, viz., "intelligent design" [sic].

I think this second question has not often enough been emphasized. Spinoza, writing nearly two centuries before Darwin's publication of On the Origin of Species, preempts the arguments of the anti-evolutionists. In possibly my favorite passage in all of philosophy, he writes:
[Early humans] consider all natural things as means to their own advantage. And knowing that they had found these means, not provided them for themselves, they had reason to believe that there was someone else who had prepared those means for their use. For after they considered things as means, they could not believe that the things had made themselves; but from the means they were accustomed to prepare for themselves, they had to infer that there was a ruler, or a number of rulers of nature, endowed with human freedom, who had taken care of all things for them, and made all things for their use....

So they maintained it as certain that the judgments of the Gods far surpass man's grasp. This alone, of course, would have caused the truth to be hidden from the human race to eternity, if Mathematics, which is concerned not with ends, but only with the essences and properties of figures, had not shown men another standard of truth....

...the Followers of this doctrine, who have wanted to show off their cleverness in assigning the ends of things, have introduced--to prove this doctrine of theirs--a new way of arguing: by reducing things, not to the impossible, but to ignorance. This shows that no other way of defending their doctrine was open to them.

For example, if a stone has fallen from a roof onto someone's head and killed him, they will show, in the following way, that the stone fell in order to kill the man. For if it did not fall to that end, God willing it, how could so many circumstances have concurred by chance (for often many circumstances do concur at once)? Perhaps you will answer that it happened because the wind was blowing hard and the man was walking that way. But they will persist: why was the wind blowing hard at that time? why was the man walking that way at that same time? If you answer again that the wind arose then because on the preceding day, while the weather was still calm, the sea began to toss, and that the man had been invited by a friend, they will press on--for there is no end to the questions which can be asked: but why was the sea tossing? why was the man invited at just that time? And so they will not stop asking for the causes of causes until you take refuge in the will of God, i.e., the sanctuary of ignorance.

Similarly, when they see the structure of the human body, they are struck by a foolish wonder, and because they do not know the causes of so great an art, they infer that it is constructed, not by mechanical, but by divine, or supernatural art, and constituted in such a way that one part does not injure another.

Hence it happens that one who seeks the true causes of miracles, and is eager, like an educated man, to understand natural things, not to wonder at them, like a fool, is generally considered and denounced as an impious heretic by those whom the people honor as interpreters of nature and the Gods. For they know that if ignorance is taken away, then foolish wonder, the only means they have of arguing and defending their authority, is also taken away.
(from Ethics I, Appendix; Curley's translation; my emphases)
Beautiful, isn't it? It's no coincidence that the Kansas skoolbord had to change the very definition of science in order to pass ID as scientific. But it's not simply the case that ID "theory" offers an alternative explanation that happens to rely on supernatural instead of natural causes.

Rather, intelligent design is not an explanation at all. It is a new name for foolish wonder, for taking refuge in the sanctuary of ignorance. It is an impetus to inquiry, a blockade against further reflection and observation. What new research programmes have been spawned by ID? What kinds of experiments can we conduct to learn more about how it works and whether it is supported by evidence? There can be none, in principle.

This is why, in one sense, the Discovery Institute and its ilk do not pose a threat to biological research (except insofar as they threaten its funding). They are simply saying, "Give up, these things are too complicated to be explained by human beings! Only God knows how it works." Meanwhile, the researchers can nod their heads, mutter "whatever" under their breath, and then get back to the lab to try and figure out some of these unanswerable questions.

In truth, ID is creationism under a new name, employing scientific arguments in bad faith, only so that they may preserve the ignorance and obedience to authority of the primitive masses. They may not do so consciously, but it is in the best interest of the respected interpreters of the gods, the Jerry Fallwells and Pat Robertsons and Ralph Reeds, to keep their flocks from asking too many difficult questions.

It is not God's, but the authority's will which must remain unquestioned. The smarter ones know that the design argument is the most compelling one for the existence of God, and they know that evolution demolishes it.

They know that it spawns in the flock impious desires to lift their heads up from the ground and get a better look at these wolves in shepherds' clothing. And so, they lead their herds across treacherous paths to the barren grounds of ignorance, fleecing their sheep as the little lambs noisily chew a cud of fear and falsity and bleat excitedly in anticipation of the joyous slaughter that awaits them.

(Hey, that's not bad. Maybe a little forced, but it's pretty poetic for me. But do sheep chew cud? I hope so.)

So, who benefits from making evolution into a controversy? On the one hand, we find the religious demagogues, who make their livelihood off of foolish wonder. But joined by the bonds of an unholy covenant, we find also the lawmakers/lawbreakers who discover false piety to be a quick and dirty means of satisfying their cravings for power, and also corporate America, which will happily exploit whatever opportunities for fleecing the public that it can get.

I'm not saying that all or any of this is necessarily conscious. Karl Rove is probably aware of his malevolence, perhaps also Cheney, but most believe enough of the pia fraus to fool themselves.

The phenomenon is of course more complicated, but a think that something like this goes a long way toward explaining why so much energy is invested into making evolution into a controversy. Coupled with it is probably a dim realization on the part of the superstitious that evolution does in fact threaten a number of their beliefs, and makes the world out to be uncomfortably complex, impossible for their simple minds to grasp.

I have not fully decided if this is a battle worth fighting--to what end? with what minimal chance of success? However, I am compelled to be repulsed by ignorance, particularly when it is willfully imposed on others by people who should know better. In any case, I can assure you that in any future philosophy class I teach, if it is relevant, I will be discussing the design argument, and Spinoza's and Darwin's responses thereto.

UPDATE: Check out this response from a philosopher of science on the question of evolution "theory vs. fact."

Dickson is more careful about distinguishing between the terms than I am. In light of his comments, which I largely agree with, I would say that I am trying to argue that, regardless of what one means by "theory" or "fact," ID is not even on the same playing field as evolution.

Evolution offers an explanatory model, supported by mountains of evidence and useful for designing further experiments, which in turn refine this complex explanation of how all life has a common origin. (A philosopher of science could articulate this process more clearly, but I set that aside.) ID, on the other hand, is just a dead end. It explains nothing and leaves no room for new evidence.

Also, it makes the designer look like the "I" should stand for "incompetent." A first-year engineering student could design some of the features of our bodies better. Why all the dead ends and vestigial organs? Why the mass extinctions? Why the rapid adaptation of newer and newer pathogenic microbes that require novel immune responses? As one recent guest on the Colbert Report suggested, everyone who gets a flu shot should have to sign a statement saying they acknowledge the truth of evolution; otherwise there is no explanation for why a new shot is required annually. What, is God keeping us on our toes?

1 comment:

Jeff said...


Nice post--I like particularly the contrast between the productivity of the theory of evolution versus the mere statement of belief that intelligent design seems to be. This seems like a useful distinction in general for the critique of fundamentalism. The difference between and belief and a theory (seems like to me, anyway) is that a theory is productive in just the sense you describe. It opens up possiblities for seeing new things in the world and for undertaking new experiments. A belief, on the other hand, is something that we hold--like capital in the pocket of a banker, or like Heidegger's "standing reserve"--but do little with besides earning "interest," i.e., producing more of the same sorts of beliefs.

This is exactly what the fundamentalist believer does when he claims to justify his action by means of a belief; his or her life accumulates just like a bank account with interest, accumulating more and more actions, but each action is exactly the same because it is guided by the same simple statement. Living according to one's beliefs (if one hold to the distinction made here between belief and theory) is a formula for monotony and sameness on the level of the individual and fascism on the level of the state.

On the other hand, a theory, like labor, has intrinsic value. The value of a theory is that it, in accord with its status as hypothesis, opens up possibilities, new ways of seeing, new choices to make, new experiments to undergo. The theoretical life is a life of growth as well, but the growth of theory is no line of accumulating capital. Theoretical growth is vital growth--it is akin to the growth of a plant, which sends out shoots and tendrils, some of which must be pruned away, some left to flourish. A theory, then, is like a gardener's plan. It is a guideline for the cultivation of life.

The fundament of life is not beliefs; it is the material soil of history, place, season, family, community. Because of its hypothetical, experimental, and non-reductive character, a theory allows us to see more clearly how these material forces shape us so that we can cultivate stronger, healthier lives. Fundamentalist beliefs are like dull machetes--they respond to life with either a yes or a no. A theory is a delicate tool which is useless without its practicioner--like pruning shears in the hand of a gardener. Those who do would confuse the machete with the pruning shears show only their own inexperience with gardening, their own lack of cultivation.